Copper thieves hit 16 DeKalb schools; cost to district is $800,000

Ken Watts | 8/8/2014, 6:10 a.m.
As schools prepare to open Aug. 11 for the new school year, officials say copper thieves have cost the district ...
School district crews had to scramble to install temporary coolers so that children can return to school on Aug. 11.

As schools prepare to open Aug. 11 for the new school year, officials say copper thieves have cost the district $800,000 and are threatening its ability to teach.

Between May and July, officials say that thieves damaged air conditioning units at 16 DeKalb schools, mostly in south DeKalb County.

Thieves vandalized the HVAC units and stole copper tubing at eight elementary schools, seven middle schools and one high school.

School Superintendent Michael Thurmond said the district is under attack.

“It became clear that the DeKalb County School District was being victimized on a wide scale by individuals seeking to destroy and vandalize and to take copper from our schools and have put in jeopardy the quality of education for literally tens of thousands of students,” he said Thursday, four days before the bell rings on the first day of the 2014-2015 school year.

Over the summer break, thieves hit Rainbow, Dunaire, Edward Bouie, Fairington, Midvale, Murphey Candler, Oak View and Pine Ridge elementary schools; Columbia, McNair, Miller Grove, Redan, Salem, Stephenson and Druid Hills middle schools; and Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Thurmond said he called on DeKalb interim CEO Lee May and Dr. Cedric Alexander, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for Public Safety, to help the district fight back when the crisis threatened the start of the new school year.

Children cannot attend classes if their buildings have no air conditioning.

School District maintenance crews had to scramble to make repairs in time for the first day of school. At Stephenson Middle, the district turned to a portable 210-ton chiller to cool the buildings on Monday when class resumes. Workers made similar fixes at other schools.

In a united show of force, Thurmond, May and Alexander said several police officers staged an Aug. 7 news conference at Stephenson Middle in Stone Mountain to announce that they are activating a special school burglary suppression unit to catch the thieves.

May said the county, too, has been victimized by the crime spree. Over the same time period, copper thieves have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to HVAC units at county libraries and recreation centers.

Since May 8, thieves have repeatedly stripped copper tubings from the HVAC units at the Wesley Chapel-William C. Brown Library in Decatur and at the Redan-Trotti Library in Lithonia. They also have vandalized units at the Flat Shoals Library and at the Community Achievement Center in Decatur, costing the county more than $230,000 in repairs. The Wesley Chapel and Redan-Trotti libraries, which have been hit multiple times, have been closed for more than two months.

Thieves also have attacked HVAC units at several churches, including Hillcrest Church of Christ and Green Pastures Christian Church in Decatur and Antioch AME Church in Stone Mountain.

Alexander said the most valuable help will come from the public. He called on people who live near schools to report anything suspicious to police.

“These thefts are costly,” Alexander said. “They cause $600,000 worth of damage to make $100. It costs the taxpayers and it costs resources. If you add it up together, you’re way over a million dollars.”

May said they are sending a strong message to the perpetrators of these crimes.

“DeKalb County will not tolerate any actions of this sort,” he said. “We will arrest you and you will be tried and convicted in DeKalb.”